Continuing the series of blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…
After my visit to Kara Tepe, I visited a camp for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa with Dr Yulie Tzirou of the University of the Aegean. The first thing you see on arrival is a line of life jackets tied to the gate bearing letters that say ‘Safe Passage’ and this is also stamped on the bags made from recycled materials at Mosaik. Fortunately, on this occasion I was allowed to take photos and I interviewed some of the staff working there and saw the chalets where the refugees live. I asked Yulie for permission to take the photos you see in this blog and no photos or films were taken showing refugees out of respect for their dignity. Pikpa is much smaller than Kara Tepe, and Yulie referred to it several times as a community.
Refugees could come and go as they wished, there was a kitchen, communal cooking and eating facilities and heated accommodation, some of it made from recycled boats abandoned on the Lesvos coast. The refugees had a garden and they composted waste material from the kitchens. I interviewed Yulie and a volunteer called Imelda who organises classes for the children. Imelda told me how important it was that the children should have order and stability in their lives after everything that they had gone through. There was a happy and welcoming atmosphere in the camp.
I came away from Pikpa full of the greatest admiration for the humanitarian work undertaken by the volunteers. Whilst there is an agreement with Turkey to patrol the borders more closely and a reciprocal scheme to take refugees from camps in Turkey in return for taking refugees from Lesvos, refugees are still arriving on the island, albeit in much smaller numbers than last year. The new arrivals need help and support. Time will tell whether the agreement continues to hold but if it breaks down the island may face the large numbers of refugees making the crossing from Turkey as happened in 2015.
Now that the life jacket is in the Museum we are making plans to put it on display together with bags made from recycled life jackets. The Museum hopes to be able to host a temporary exhibition about the refugee crisis in Lesvos during Refugee Week 2017 (19th to 25th June). Students from the University of Manchester’s Art Gallery and Museum Studies (AGMS) course will work on the exhibition, which is inspired by an exhibition about the refugee crisis shown in Mytilene and Athens. At the time of writing it is also hoped to work on this project with students from the University of the Aegean.
In this modest way we hope to engage our visitors about the collecting life project theme of migration. Through it we will tell visitors about the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis and hopefully generate interest and support for the work of the volunteers and organisations trying to help refugees. Director of the Manchester Museum, Nick Merriman, wrote in January’s Museum’s Journal that the Brexit vote had revealed ‘a vein of intolerance and xenophobia that we hoped had been consigned to the past’. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote it is now important more than ever that we do not lose sight of the values of compassion, tolerance and mutual respect that are enshrined within our museums and art galleries. If the collecting life project also gives a boost to acquiring contemporary and topical objects for museum collections, then so much the better.
This collecting life visit would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of individuals and institutions: the Mayor of Municipality of Mytilene, Mr Gallinos, and his Senior Advisor, Mr Andriotis; Dr Evi Sampanikou, Dr Yulie Tzirou, Dr Katarina Nikolarea and Prof Dmitri Papageorgiou at the University of the Aegean; Martina at Mosaik; and last but not least Dr Areti Damala at the University of Strathclyde who very kindly facilitated the initial contact with staff at the University of the Aegean. To all of the above and all the other Greek people and refugees I met on my visit to Lesvos, I’d like to express my sincerest thanks and those of the Manchester Museum.
Read about the installation of the refugee’s life jacket in the following blog post: